by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
At first glance this would seem to be a clever pun and eloquent distillation of W. E. B. Du Bois’ 1897 writing about two-ness in Black American identity.
…American world, — a world which yields him no self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.
Yet Hughes also may be invoking a poem by a popular yet infamously racist poet.
Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892) supposedly wrote about diversity in 1867, invoking visions of variation in individual agency, with “I hear America singing”.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
What’s missing from the list of voices in 1867?
That’s right after the Civil War.
This is what Whitman called the varied voices in America? And he says “belongs to him or her” as if there’s freedom through ownership, yet leaves out the burning issue of those denied freedom because they… are varied.
Whitman wasn’t just a white guy being like white guys at the time. No. Definitely not.
We have ample evidence of millions of white men fighting to end slavery, to end racism. When people say white men weren’t anti-racist in 1867 they’re displaying sad ignorance.
The attorney general with a newly created 1870 Department of Justice, Amos Akerman, was in fact accused of wanting too much equality. And he was a former Confederate colonel who redeemed himself immediately at the end of war.
And hello, John Brown?
Whitman doesn’t get any slack on this point. Stop normalizing his racism at a time when many, many prominent white men were virulently anti-racist and gave the ultimate sacrifice to equalize rights.
Whitman should have known and done better. Hughes doesn’t call this out directly, but you can hear that message in his singing.